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Why We Need the Election Assistance Commission

By Matthew Weil

Thursday, February 9, 2017

On Tuesday, the House Administration Committee considered a bill to eliminate the only federal agency tasked with improving the voting process for all Americans. If this seems like a strange response to an election marked by allegations of voter fraud, voter suppression, and election rigging—from both sides of the political aisle—you’re not wrong.

While there are legitimate concerns about the role of the federal government in elections, eliminating the United States Election Assistance Commission will lead to less secure and more costly elections in the future. And all Americans will lose.

Regularly over the last decade, lawmakers have argued that the EAC intrudes on state and local election administrators who bear the responsibility for actually running American elections, and that it costs too much for the services it provides. But there are real and vital reasons for the EAC to exist.

Eliminating the United States Election Assistance Commission will lead to less secure and more costly elections in the future.

The EAC was created in 2002 as part of the Help America Vote Act, which itself was a response to real failures of election administration in the 2000 election. The goal was never to centralize election administration within the federal government, but rather to provide support to state and local administrators on the front lines of the voting experience. Notably, even after one of the closest elections in history, the bill passed with nearly unanimous bipartisan support.

From its creation, the EAC has never had more than 60 employees (including myself from 2008 to 2011), and it currently has half as many. But this small agency was given responsibility for “Motor Voter,” collecting data from states, and—for the first time ever—testing and certifying voting systems to standards. With rigorous research, strong fact-based data, and a comprehensive perspective on voting practices across the country, this agency moves the needle forward on essential improvements that states often resist without a little push.

Here is how Americans lose without an EAC.

First, the backbone of voter registration in this country is the National Voter Registration Act, or the “Motor Voter” law. Before this federal foray into voter registration, states had carte blanche to determine where, when, and how voters could register. This law required a simple registration form to be proactively provided at state departments of motor vehicles and other social service agencies. Instead of passive registration, states were for the first time required to do much more to promote voting to their citizens. The EAC tracks and reports on states’ compliance with these rules.

This new bill would transfer Motor Voter responsibilities back to the Federal Election Commission, which administered these statutes before the EAC existed. The FEC’s mission, despite its broad-sounding name, is narrow: it enforces the Federal Election Campaign Act, regulating money in politics. Many, myself included, believe the FEC has little interest or expertise in voter registration issues, which are outside its core mission. Registration issues represent some of the tallest barriers to voter participation. These issues are too vital to be treated as an agency’s side project.

The Election Assistance Commission is every voter’s advocate when it comes to voter registration.  

Second, the EAC collects unique data from every election jurisdiction in this country. The biennial Election Administration and Voting Survey has become the gold standard for researchers and policymakers looking to make sense of election administration across the country and to offer recommendations about how to improve voters’ experience at the polls. The EAC’s data about absentee voting, provisional voting, early voting, and so much more leads to evidence-based policymaking that furthers the goal of efficient, accurate, and professional elections. The legislation before Congress eliminates this data collection and reporting function. Because, no private organization has the capacity to replicate this work, election officials nationwide will once again be flying blind when it comes to how their colleagues operate and ways that they can improve their own systems.

A key function of the EAC is the testing and certification of voting systems to ensure each state’s chosen voting technology will in fact work on election day. Before the EAC, the testing and so-called certification of voting systems was done by a non-governmental organization. While doing yeoman’s work, the teams responsible for this task were underqualified and overwhelmed. Voting standards were out of date and sorely lacking.

The voting system market does not work perfectly today. However, the EAC administers reasonable and consistent voluntary voting system guidelines and is currently two years into a four-year process to dramatically improve those guidelines so that they reflect the needs of voters today. Without national guidelines, which by their very title are voluntary for the states, voting system manufacturers can produce whatever technology makes them the most money. Individual states, acting without a national voting systems certification process, may try to impose their own unique standards on manufacturers. Without getting into whether these state standards would be as rigorous as those the EAC creates, it will drive up costs for voting technology if voting system manufacturers have to build to more than 50 state certification programs. Voters will cover this cost in one way or another.

The EAC’s budget is about $8 million annually. That means that this agency costs each participating voter in 2016 about 6 cents. The EAC ensures the integrity of our elections while performing bipartisan research about innovations for elections in the future. It is every voter’s advocate when it comes to voter registration. And without the EAC, the voting technology market of the future will be an unworkable mess. It is every Americans’ interest to see that the lights are kept on at the EAC.

KEYWORDS: ELECTION ASSISTANCE COMMISSION, HELP AMERICA VOTE ACT OF 2002, 115TH CONGRESS, FEDERAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN ACT